Plato and Aristotle are regarded as the oldest thinkers whose political views and theories have contributed to the development of the body polity. It is surprising that most of the events and incidences that informed the debates during the times of these Greek thinkers have continued to date in the modern society (Strauss and Cropsey 65). What makes a good government? What constitutes a good life? Why is the use of reason important? What is justice? These questions have continued to linger in political debates where political theorists, thinkers, rulers, and citizens have been drawn in a number of disputes insofar as finding the answers to these questions is concerned. In addition, the issue of who should rule has equally been a longstanding dispute across the society from the ancient period to modern society. This essay focuses on the political ideals of Plato and Aristotle based on their earlier works. This paper will draw a contrast between the political views of the two thinkers basing the discussion on their views on individual’s role in politics, the notion of good life, happiness, as well as who ought to rule. These views will be contrasted with those presented by the 20th century political thinker, Hannah Arendt, specifically with regards to the significance of public and private realm in human happiness.
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Plato was primarily concerned with how to develop a perfect society. In his book, TheRepublic, Plato creates a basis for such an ideal society based on his experiences with the numerous tensions in the political life (Strauss and Cropsey 45). The Republic provides a number of views presented by Plato on how the inherent societal problems could be resolved (Pappas 66). In his personal views, the numerous problems afflicting both human personality and society can be successfully cured. With regards to politics, Plato viewed that the government could not just be formed through disorientation of faith and fear and indolence and improvisation (Vlastos 101). In essence, Plato was preoccupied with how to achieve an ideal society where all the problems associated with individual happiness and participation in governance would be minimized.
In his perfect society, Plato identified three distinct but non-hereditary components of the government. He called the first group, the Guardians (Gold) that brings together both the ruling and non-ruling Guardians. That is, the ruling class and the non-ruling class which consists of highly ranked civil servants who are primarily charged with policy making in the society. The Auxiliaries (Silver), which consist of minor civil servants and soldiers, forms the second group. The third and final group consists of the Workers, also known as the Artisan (Bronze). Farmers, craftsmen, and unskilled laborers are largely grouped under this category (Pappas 65). According to Plato, the Guardians are expected to be good and wise rulers, he likens the Guardians to craftsmen and argues that, just like craftsmen, any group of emerging rulers must be public-spirited in character and above all, should be skilled in the art of ruling or governance (Pappas 64). For Plato, the Guardians should be elevated to a position whereby they assume the role of absolute rulers. In other words, this group should be the selected few, charged with directing the course of the society and therefore, must know what is best for the society at all times (Strauss and Cropsey 67).
Unlike his mentor, Aristotle’s major concern was not how to create a perfect society; rather his primary concern was how to improve the systems of the existing society. Moreover, he disagreed with the notion that one class in society should hold absolute political power. Aristotle asserted that, instead of setting standards for the creation of an ideal society, the society should strive to reach for the best possible system achievable. Through his works in The Politics, Aristotle takes a different stand away from Plato’s unachievable ideals of perfect society. While Plato depended on deductive approach in developing his arguments, Aristotle took a more inductive approach. The utopia sought by Plato is simply an abstract solution, a solution for no tangible problem (Pappas 58).
Clearly no concrete evidence exists insofar as drastic reformation suggested by Plato is required by particular societies (Vlastos 89). Aristotle asserts that the lack of circulation between classes would definitely exclude certain individuals who may be wise and ambitious from holding any political seat, simply because they do not belong to the right class of society. For Aristotle, the ruling class suggested by Plato is simply an ill-conceived political structure that would be a recipe for chaos and deprives individual happiness in the society. The whole idea of having a ruling class not only deprives the Guardians of any happiness but also transmits such unhappiness to the entire state. In other words, the Guardians who are forced to lead the strict lifestyle inherent in Plato’s Utopia may easily impose the same lifestyle on the entire population thus, depriving them of their happiness. Aristotle therefore, thinks a lot of emphasis should be put on moderation. According to him, Utopia was simply an abstract and a superficial notion which in reality was unattainable. In other words, it would not allow for realistic solutions for the numerous societal problems. Aristotle believed that the strict reformation of the society as a whole, agitated by Plato was simply unnecessary (Strauss and Cropsey 87).
There are issues emerging from Plato’s perfect society that are undefined and to the extreme, suggest that no man would ever be able to attain to his requirements (Vlastos 89). Aristotle asserts that Plato could be underrating the qualitative changes in human personality and character, necessary before the utopia is achieved. In his works, The Republic, Plato outlines how he thinks men should act as well as the attitudes they should have in an ideal society. However, Aristotle experimentally attempts to use what he considers as real men in the real world, in foreseeing how and what should be improved to achieve the best society (Strauss and Cropsey 56).
Both Plato and Aristotle share the view that justice exists only in an objective sense. In other words, justice dictates that all individuals should be provided with a good life irrespective of their social status (Pappas 66). Aristotle draws a comparison between democratic and oligarchic societies where the notion of justice is interpreted different. He says that in democratic states justice is equated to equality while in oligarchic societies, the inequality in the distribution of political power is perfectly regarded as just. Plato believes that it is only through law and justice that the society is able to hold together. In essence, the two items would functions as guidelines for the overall behaviors of the members of the society, thus promoting order and harmony in the society (Strauss and Cropsey 89).
However, Aristotle differs with Plato on what holds the society together. He puts a lot of emphasis on the polis (civilized community) as an institution. According to Aristotle, the polis is a structure that provides avenues for average individual members of the society to engage in political affairs. This institution may not be described as the society or state per se, but is a larger unit comprising of the two. Both Aristotle and Plato found it unnecessary to provide a distinction between the society and the state, thus, rendering the definition of the polis inadequate. However, the notion of the polis greatly contrasts the theory put forward by Plato that the society should have one ruling class responsible for running the political affairs as well as making decisions relating to all affairs of the society (Strauss and Cropsey 78).
Plato’s theory of society is based on the notion that a perfect society is achievable but only if each social class in society remained true to and virtuously carries out its different roles and responsibility. In Plato’s theory, only the ruling class should be allowed to govern and to make all decisions relating to the affairs of the society (Strauss and Cropsey 86). Aristotle on the other hand, adopts a contrasting view regarding the government and the achievement of happiness in the society. Aristotle puts forth the theory of democracy, in which he describes democracy as a perversion type of polity government (Strauss and Cropsey 102). He states that the society should be capable of according all its member sovereignty and should not consider the few as the best. Contrastingly, Plato would not encourage the public to participate in governance of the society much as Aristotle would prefer. Plato’s theory of having a ruling clique in the society is based on the argument that members of the public lack knowledge (unlike the ruling class) and more often base their judgment of approval or otherwise, on belief (Strauss and Cropsey 83).
Aristotle disagrees with the notion that uniqueness in skill determines how good a city is. He states that a society is made up of many people who have different skills and abilities. While Plato contends that, some of these people are more qualified for certain tasks than others; Aristotle disagrees. Aristotle believes that every citizen is capable of ruling so long as he or she has the education and follows the law. The best society according to Aristotle is one, where the citizens are capable of making their own choices. This is achieved by providing the majority with the opportunities to rule (Strauss and Cropsey 56).
The two thinkers also differed on how and what would cause revolts in the society. According to Plato, if a society were to witness a revolution, then it would be what he calls a palace revolution. A palace revolution is defined as simply the transfer of power from the custodian to the other (Vlastos 78). Aristotle argues that revolutions can only be orchestrated by the either the poor or the rich. He believes that the society can only prevent the occurrence of revolutions by always anticipating the two classes (Pappas 56). Plato argues that in a perfect society, revolution would occur when a group of disgruntled Guardians emerge and disregard the rules. He argues that in an oligarchy, such an occurrence would be prompted by two things: first, revolution would occur when and if the offspring of the rulers grow to be too weak and sympathetic with the members of the low social classes; and when the population of the poor members of the society grows bigger than that of the ruling class who feel they cannot handle the exploitation by the ruling elite anymore. Aristotle asserts that to identify and understand the factors that lead to the destruction of the constitution is sufficient for knowing the factors that promote their preservation (Strauss and Cropsey 79).
The views of contemporary political thinker Hannah Arendt, have greatly contrasted those of the early Greek thinkers. For her, the Greeks understood political virtue and the value of life in the polis in a particular way that completely distorted the true meaning of the public and the private realms. She introduces the notion of public and private realms and argues that Greek life existed in these two realms. The public realm comprised of the political activities while the private realm consisted of the property and was therefore necessary for the continued existence of the former. According to Arendt, the public realm is the site where individuals can truly gain freedom. This view is consistent with that of Aristotle. It is within this real that glory and “glorious deeds” can be achieved, because private affairs can sometimes be charming but would never be glorious (Dossa 58).
Arendt considers the society as just a collection of individual’s private needs put in one entity and thus, can only be compared to the household. She therefore argues that public realm begins from the point where an individual’s necessity ends and it is for this rationale that the members of the public would seek to improve their condition from mere physical sustenance in order to gain entry into the public sphere. Within the public sphere, citizens have the luxury of discussing issues that go beyond personal interest and transcend all life issues. The main topics of debate would include law, education, and war, among other issues that are of great concern to all members of the society. However, violence is unheard of in this sphere, where glory is achieved by use of one’s rhetorical and reasoning prowess to successfully persuade others (Dossa 56).
On the other hand, private realm is mainly preoccupied with how to get the basic needs. According to Arendt, private realm is placed directly within the surroundings of the household and mainly comprises of children, women, and slaves. Private realm provides site for the performance of all manner of activities associated with sustenance of one’s livelihood, which includes reproduction, production, economic activities, among others. Arendt states that slaves in the private realm are those individuals whose lives were largely dictated by the need to seek necessity for themselves and for their masters. She notes that violence is quite common in the private real as it is necessary in keeping a household together. Arendt further asserts that before gaining entry into the public realm of freedom, individuals in the private realm would have to use violence in solving all manner of problems concerning their life’s needs (Dossa 104).
It is undoubtedly clear that Plato and Aristotle were great thinkers whose ideas have immensely contributed to the understanding of the government and the role of the public in it. Both philosophers’ ideas have greatly had an impact on modern setting of the society. Plato being a political philosopher sought the philosophical truth that underlies societal structures. Aristotle on the other hand, was primarily concerned with the members of the public (the citizen) and the structures of political institutions. The two thinkers had great ideas and plans, on how society should look like and provided a good foundation for the improvement of the society. The impact of their works was not only felt in the ancient world but has greatly shaped the current political thoughts. For instance, Aristotle’s views and ideologies have largely contributed to the development of the modern day democratic beliefs. In addition, modern day thinkers like Hannah Arendt owe a lot to Plato and Aristotle who provided the basis for the development of political science. While these two great thinkers held different opinions and views on society and how it should function, they share a common belief that a better life was achievable in a society.
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